Prosecutorial Administration: Prosecutor Bias and the Department of Justice

Article — Volume 99, Issue 2

99 Va. L. Rev. 271
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It is by now well known that federal prosecutors hold the reins of power in individual federal criminal cases. They have almost unlim-ited and unreviewable power to select the charges that will be brought against defendants. Prosecutors have also been a driving force in the political arena for mandatory minimum sentences and new federal criminal laws.

But prosecutorial power over federal criminal justice policy goes deeper still. Because of the structure of the Department of Justice, prosecutors are involved in other areas of criminal justice policymak-ing. Indeed, we are living in a time of “prosecutorial administration,” with prosecutors at the helm of every major federal criminal justice matter.

This Article describes the current regime of “prosecutorial admin-istration” and explains why its consequences should concern anyone interested in a rational criminal justice regime that is unbiased in any particular direction. It focuses on three areas of criminal justice poli-cy— corrections, clemency, and forensics—and describes how these matters came under the aegis of the Department without much con-cern about the conflicts they would create with the Department’s law enforcement mission. It is a well-established feature of institutional design that agencies with competing mandates will adhere to the dominant one. In the case of the Department of Justice, that dominant mandate is undoubtedly law enforcement and obtaining convictions in particular cases. As a result, whenever conflicts arise (or appear to arise) between this mission and other functions such as corrections, clemency, or forensic science, the law enforcement interests (as per-ceived by the Department’s prosecutors) will dominate.

Thus, if decisions about corrections, forensics, and clemency are be-ing made by prosecutors—and thus through the lens of what would be good for prosecutors and their cases—it is possible that these deci-sions are not accounting for what would be good policy overall, taking into account interests other than law enforcement. Indeed, even if the goal is law enforcement, prosecutors are not well-suited to take into account the long-term goals of law enforcement because they tend to focus on the short-term pressure of dealing with current cases and may develop cognitive biases that make it hard for them to see a broader perspective. 

The Article thus turns to the question of how institutional design could help create a more balanced approach in the areas of correc-tions, forensics, and clemency that is not so tilted to law enforcement concerns. After making the case that institutional change is feasible in at least some areas, the Article tackles the question of what changes could yield positive results in each of these areas and what tradeoffs they entail.

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  Volume 99 / Issue 2  

The Liability Rule for Constitutional Torts

By John C. Jeffries, Jr.
99 Va. L. Rev. 207

Prosecutorial Administration: Prosecutor Bias and the Department of Justice

By Rachel E. Barkow
99 Va. L. Rev. 271

Why the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Provides a Defense in Suits by Private Plaintiffs

By Shruti Chaganti
99 Va. L. Rev. 343

Chevron and Constitutional Doubt

By Jonathan D. Urick
99 Va. L. Rev. 375